It’s fine to reform ECO but cutting it back would be an act of political vandalism

Joey Gardiner

The news this week that what the statisticians euphemistically label “excess winter deaths” rose by a shocking 29% last winter highlights in the starkest possible way the potential human impact of the government’s threats to cut domestic retrofit projects.

The somewhat Orwellian official language hides the reality of thousands of people, mainly pensioners, dying each year because their homes are so cold they leave them vulnerable to illness and infections. David Cameron has been reported as telling his closest advisers he wants to “get rid of all the green crap” from the cost of energy bills, yet the programme he and his chancellor George Osborne are considering cutting - all sources agree - is ECO, a programme that pays for the kind of work on homes which could, this winter, help save lives. Albeit the latest reports are that the scheme will be cut back, rather than scrapped entirely.

Clearly ECO is not the whole answer to the problem of excess deaths. Most of last winter’s shocking figures occurred at a time when ECO was in force, and the fitting of extra insulation in the homes of vulnerable people is only one part of the solution to this difficult social issue. But for the government to consider cutting the biggest programme available to help the thermal efficiency of homes at this moment, and dress it up as a cull of excessive green regulations, would be an act of dangerous political vandalism.

The debate highlights what happens when government policy becomes the subject of Westminster Punch and Judy politics

Meanwhile there is no anticipation of cuts to the £1bn-2bn raised each year from energy bills through the Carbon Floor Price, which both environmental groups and industry agree is a ineffective levy, presumably because the money ends up in the Treasury’s coffers rather than paying for much needed retrofit work.

The issue is the biggest at stake in next week’s Autumn Statement to be delivered by Osborne. The industry - in the form of the UKGBC and product manufacturers - is right to raise the political stakes by linking deaths to ECO, particularly given that the industry’s dire predictions of 40,000 job losses if the ECO is cut seem to so far have had little political impact.

Yes, ECO is just one policy area in the balance next week. The industry will also be looking out for news on housing - where government support has so far been welcomed by builders - infrastructure funding, and tweaks to the planning system. But ECO is the area where there is the threat of needless tinkering that is most concerning.

Undoubtedly ECO requires reform. It is far less efficient than its predecessor schemes scrapped by the coalition, and its cost could be reduced without significantly reducing its impact on keeping homes warm. The debate highlights what happens when government policy becomes the subject of Westminster Punch and Judy politics. It seems ECO has become a kind of proxy by which Cameron and Osborne can seek to mitigate Labour’s point-scoring over energy bills, and at the same time mollify disaffected backbenchers upset over the construction of windfarms. In reality ECO, which makes up 4% of energy bills and has nothing to do with the construction of renewable energy generation capacity, has little relation to either issue.

The government should come clean about this, and resist the temptation to can ECO. Reform it, yes, but cutting it back now would be bad government and lowest common denominator politics.

Joey Gardiner, assistant editor

This article was written on 27 November and then amended 28 November in the light of reports that ECO will be cut back rather than scrapped entirely